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Rights groups slam cyber libel conviction: Dangerous to PH democracy

Human rights groups on Monday, June 15, slammed the guilty verdict on Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos over a cyber libel case that tested the Philippine Cybercrime law. 

Karapatan said the conviction not just has dire implications on press freedom but also on the people’s right to information and freedom of expression.

Taken alongside media killings and threats under President Rodrigo Duterte, the guilty verdict made what it called a full-blown dictatorship "more palpable.”  

“It sends the dangerous message that journalists who expose misdeeds of those in power are more vulnerable to retaliation to silence them,” Karapatan secretary-general Cristina Palabay said. 

“It also sends an even more dangerous message to the public that anyone and everyone can be criminalized for their views and opinions,” she added. 

Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa ruled that only Ressa and Santos are guilty of cyber libel charges, sentencing them to a minimum 6 months and 1 day up to a maximum of 6 years in jail over charges filed by businessman Wilfredo Keng. They will appeal the decision to higher courts. (READ: Rappler statement on cyber libel conviction: Failure of justice, failure of democracy)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the verdict will not only impact individual journalists, but will have long-term effects on the country’s democracy that is already suffering from oppressive policies under President Rodrigo Duterte. 

“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said. 

“The prosecution was not just an attack on these individual journalists but also a frontal assault on freedom of the press that is critical to protect and preserve Philippine democracy," he added. 

Kalipunan ng mga Kilusang Masa (KALIPUNAN) said the conviction is "completely unacceptable," much like the closure of ABS-CBN and the railroading of the anti-terror bill. 

"This will go down in history as another emblematic example of lawfare – the weaponization of the law – to silence those who speak truth to power," the group said. 

KALIPUNAN is composed of Alyansa Tigil Mina, Kilos Maralita, PAKISAMA, Partido Manggagawa  SENTRO, Urban Poor Alliance, World March of Women, and USAD.

Ressa faces 7 other charges, stemming from the mother case over the company's PDRs, which the Court of Appeals had ruled to be already cured.

Here are other statements from human rights and labor groups:

Amnesty International
Asia-Pacific Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin

This verdict is a sham and should be quashed. Ressa, Santos and the Rappler team are being singled out for their critical reporting of the Duterte administration, including ongoing human rights violations in the Philippines. The accusations against them are political, the prosecution was politically-motivated, and the sentence is nothing but political.

With this latest assault on independent media, the human rights record of the Philippines continues its free fall. It is time for the UN to urgently open an international investigation into the country’s human rights crisis, in line with the recent conclusions of the UN Human Rights office itself.

Ressa and her team have become global icons for press freedom after President Duterte himself has repeatedly singled them out for attack, intimidation and harassment. They face a long battle ahead, with several more politically motivated charges awaiting trial.

This guilty verdict follows the shutdown of ABS-CBN, which remains off the air – also after coming under the President’s attacks. The international community cannot remain silent in the face of this brazen vendetta against the press.

Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA)
Fernando Hicap, chairperson

Duterte is on a roll; after the shutdown of a broadcasting giant, an online news site is now the target of state persecution. This is plain and simple attack against freedom of the press and speech. Rappler has been the target of Duterte's tirade and threat ever since for being critical against the government's wickedness, most especially to the extra-judicial killings and human rights violations.

Duterte will be recorded in history as the press freedom enemy number one. His attacks against the critical and independent press while railroading a repressive anti-terrorism bill are manifestations of a dictatorship. He should be reminded over and over that the last time a tyrant shutdown a media institution, he was ousted in power. 

In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND)

We strongly protest the verdict on Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. as an affront to the freedom of the press and the freedom of expression; it is an attack on all who raise their voice in dissent; we are Maria Ressa, we are all convicted.

KAPATID
Spokesperson Fides Lim

As how political prisoners were arrested for standing up against oppression, the verdict dramatizes how laws are being twisted to silence dissenters and truth-tellers. The conviction of Ressa and Santos Jr. clearly sets a dangerous precedent that those who expose the government’s misdeeds will be persecuted.

We stand in solidarity with media workers and all those who rightly condemn this most recent attack on press freedom and of the people’s rights to information and free speech. Filipinos should resist the growing threats and violations against our Constitutionally protected rights.

SENTRO
Chairperson Daniel Edralin

Today is another day of infamy for freedom of the press. The conviction of Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa and former Rappler researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos should be seen as part of the Duterte Administration’s relentless campaign to silence political dissent. This is how a would-be dictator is dismantling what’s left of our democratic rights - by weaponizing the law against all its perceived opponents! 

Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Executive director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu

The convictions will have significant implications on press freedom and the freedom of expression for years to come. It clearly demonstrates how the Government has weaponised its laws to target journalists, critics and democracy itself. 

Beyond Rappler, the President has targeted other media and press outlets, civil society, journalists, human rights defenders for expressing dissent or criticism. These verbal assaults have rendered them vulnerable to judicial harassment, intimidation, and violence from both state and non-state actors

What we are seeing is not just the politically motivated conviction against two journalists, but a systemic repression of the fundamental freedoms in the country, which is being institutionalised under this regime.

 – Rappler.com

Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.

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